War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Two

The Evening in Three Homes

I

Adrian Rackstraw opened the oven, put the chicken carefully inside, and shut the door. Then he went back to the table, and realized suddenly that he had forgotten to buy the potatoes which were to accompany it. With a disturbed exclamation, he picked up the basket that lay in a corner, put on his hat, and set out on the new errand. He considered for a moment as he reached the garden gate to which of the two shops at which Mrs. Rackstraw indifferently supplied her needs he should go, and, deciding on the nearest, ran hastily down the road. At the shop, “Three potatoes,” he said in a low, rather worried voice.

“Yes, sir,” the man answered. “Five shillings, please.”

Adrian paid him, put the potatoes in the basket, and started back home. But as at the corner he waited for the trams to go by and leave a clear crossing, his eye was caught by the railway station on his left. He looked at it for a minute or two in considerable doubt; then, changing his mind on the importance of vegetables, went back to the shop, left his basket with orders that the potatoes should be sent at once, and hurried back to the station. Once in the train, he saw bridges and tunnels succeed one another in exciting succession as the engine, satisfactorily fastened to coal-truck and carriages, went rushing along the Brighton line. But, before it reached its destination, his mother, entering the room with her usual swiftness, caught the station with her foot and sent it flying across the kitchen floor. Her immediate flood of apologies placated Adrian, however, and he left the train stranded some miles outside Brighton in order to assist her in preparing the food for dinner. She sat down on a chair for a moment, and he broke in again hastily.

“Oh, mummie, don’t sit down there, that’s my table,” he said.

“Darling, I’m so sorry,” Barbara Rackstraw answered. “Had you got anything on it?”

“Well, I was going to put the dinner things,” Adrian explained. “I’ll just see if the chicken’s cooked. Oh, it’s lovely!”

“How nice!” Barbara said abstractedly. “Is it a large chicken?”

“Not a very large one,” Adrian admitted. “There’s enough for me and you and my Bath auntie.”

“Oh,” said Barbara, startled, “is your Bath auntie here?”

“Well, she may be coming,” said Adrian. “Mummie, why do I have a Bath auntie?”

“Because a baby grew up into your Bath auntie, darling,” his mother said. “Unintentional but satisfactory, as far as it goes. Adrian, do you think your father will like cold sausages? Because there doesn’t seem to be anything else much.”

“I don’t want any cold sausages,” Adrian said hurriedly.

“No, my angel, but it’s the twenty-seventh of the month, and there’s never any money then,” Barbara said. “And here he is, anyhow.”

Lionel, in spite of the shock that he had received in the afternoon, found himself, rather to his own surprise, curiously free from the actual ghost of it. His memory had obligingly lost the face of the dead man, and it was not until he came through the streets of Tooting that he began to understand that its effect was at once more natural and more profound than he had expected. His usual sense of the fantastic and dangerous possibilities of life, a sense which dwelled persistently in a remote corner of his mind, never showing itself in full, but stirring in the absurd alarm which shook him if his wife were ever late for an appointment — this sense now escaped from his keeping, and, instead of being too hidden, became too universal to be seized. The faces he saw, the words he heard existed in an enormous void, in which he himself — reduced to a face and voice, without deeper existence — hung for a moment, grotesque and timid. There had been for an hour some attempt to reestablish the work of the office, and he had initialled, before he left, a few memoranda which were brought to him. The “L. R.” of his signature seemed now to grow balloon-like and huge about him, volleying about his face at the same time that they turned within and around him in a slimy tangle. At similar, if less terrifying, moments, in other days, he had found that a concentration upon his wife had helped to steady and free him, but when this evening he made this attempt he found even in her only a flying figure with a face turned from him, whom he dreaded though he hastened to overtake. As he put his key in the lock he was aware that the thought of Adrian had joined the mad dance of possible deceptions, and it was with a desperate and machine-like courage that he entered to dare whatever horror awaited him.

Nor did the ordinary interchange of greetings do much to disperse the cloud. It occurred to him even as he smiled at Barbara that perhaps another lover had not long left the house; it occurred to him even as he watched Adrian finding pictures of trains in the evening paper that a wild possibility — for a story perhaps; not, surely not, as truth — might be that of a child whose brain was that of the normal man of forty while all his appearance was that of four. An infant prodigy? No, but a prodigy who for some horrible reason of his own concealed his prodigiousness until the moment he expected should arrive. And when they left him to his evening meal, while Barbara engaged herself in putting Adrian to bed, a hundred memories of historical or fictitious crimes entered his mind in which the victim had been carefully poisoned under the shelter of a peaceful and happy domesticity. And not that alone or chiefly; it was not the possibility of administered poison that occupied him, but the question whether all food, and all other things also, were not in themselves poisonous. Fruit, he thought, might be; was there not in the nature of things some venom which nourished while it tormented, so that the very air he breathed did but enable him to endure for a longer time the spiritual malevolence of the world?

Possessed by such dreams, he sat listless and alone until Barbara returned and settled herself down to the evening paper. The event of the afternoon occupied, he knew, the front page. He found himself incapable of speaking of it; he awaited the moment when her indolent eyes should find it. But that would not be, and indeed was not, till she had looked through the whole paper, delaying over remote paragraphs he had never noticed, and extracting interest from the mere superfluous folly of mankind. She turned the pages casually, glanced at the heading, glanced at the column, dropped the paper over the arm of her chair, and took up a cigarette.

“He’s beginning to make quite recognizable letters,” she said. “He made quite a good K this afternoon.”

This, Lionel thought despairingly, was an example of the malevolence of the universe; he had given it, and her, every chance. Did she never read the paper? Must he talk of it himself, and himself renew the dreadful memories in open speech?

“Did you see,” he said, “what happened at our place this afternoon?”

“No,” said Barbara, surprised; and then, breaking off, “Darling, you look so ill. Do you feel ill?”

“I’m not quite the thing,” Lionel admitted. “You’ll see why, in there.” He indicated the discarded Star.

Barbara picked it up. “Where?” she asked. “‘Murder in City publishing house.’ That wasn’t yours, I suppose? Lionel, it was! Good heavens, where?”

“In my office,” Lionel answered, wondering whether some other corpse wasn’t hidden behind the chair in which she sat. Of course, they had found that one this afternoon, but mightn’t there be a body that other people couldn’t find, couldn’t even see? Barbara herself now: mightn’t she be really lying there dead? and this that seemed to sit there opposite him merely a projection of his own memories of a thousand evenings when she had sat so? What mightn’t be true, in this terrifying and obscene universe?

Barbara’s voice — or the voice of the apparent Barbara — broke in. “But, dearest,” she said, “how dreadful for you! Why didn’t you tell me? You must have had a horrible time.” She dropped the paper again and hurled herself on to her knees beside him.

He caught her hand in his own, and felt as if his body at least was sane, whatever his mind might be. After all, the universe had produced Barbara. And Adrian, who, though a nuisance, was at least delimited and real in his own fashion. The fantastic child of his dream, evil and cruel and vigilant, couldn’t at the same time have Adrian’s temper and Adrian’s indefatigable interest in things. Even devils couldn’t be normal children at the same time. He brought his wife’s wrist to his cheek, and the touch subdued the rising hysteria within him. “It was rather a loathsome business,” he said, and put out his other hand for the cigarettes.

ii

Mornington had on various occasions argued with Lionel whether pessimism was always the result of a too romantic, even a too sentimental, view of the world; and a slightly scornful mind pointed out to him, while he ate a solitary meal in his rooms that evening, that the shock which he undoubtedly had felt was the result of not expecting people to murder other people. “Whereas they naturally do,” he said to himself. “The normal thing with an unpleasant intrusion is to try and exclude it — human or not. So silly not to be prepared for these things. Some people, as De Quincey said, have a natural aptitude for being murdered. To kill or to be killed is a perfectly reasonable thing. And I will not let it stop me taking those lists round to the Vicar’s.”

He got up, collected the papers which he had been analysing for reports on parochial finance, and went off to the Vicarage of St. Cyprian’s, which was only a quarter of an hour from his home. He disliked himself for doing work that he disliked, but he had never been able to refuse help to any of his friends; and the Vicar might be numbered among them. Mornington suspected his Christianity of being the inevitable result of having moved for some time as a youth of eighteen in circles which were, in a rather detached and superior way, opposed to it; but it was a religion which enabled him to despise himself and everyone else without despising the universe, thus allowing him at once in argument or conversation the advantages of the pessimist and the optimist. It was because the Vicar, a hard-worked practical priest, had been driven by stress of experience to some similar standpoint that the two occasionally found one another congenial.

That evening, however, he found a visitor at the Vicarage, a round, dapper little cleric in gaiters, who was smoking a cigar and turning over the pages of a manuscript. The Vicar pulled Mornington into the study where they were sitting.

“My dear fellow,” he said, “come in, come in. We’ve been talking about you. Let me introduce the Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum — Mr. Mornington. What a dreadful business this is at your office! Did you have anything to do with it?”

Mornington saluted the Archdeacon, who took off his eyeglasses and bowed back. “Dreadful,” he said, tentatively Mornington thought; rather as if he wasn’t quite sure what the other wanted him to say, and was anxious to accommodate himself to what was expected. “Yes, dreadful!”

“Well,” Mornington answered, rebelling against this double sympathy, “of course, it was a vast nuisance. It disturbed the whole place. And I forgot to send the copy for our advertisement in the Bookman— so we shan’t get in this month. That’s the really annoying part. I hate being defeated by a murder. And it wasn’t even in my own room.”

“Ah, that’s the trade way of looking at it,” the Vicar said. “You’ll have some coffee? But this poor fellow . . . is it known at all who he was?”

“Nary a know,” Mornington answered brightly. “The police have the body as the clue, and that’s all. Rather large, and inconvenient to lug about, and of course only available for a few days. Nature, you know. But it’s the Bookman that annoys me — you wouldn’t believe how much.”

“Oh, come, not really!” the Vicar protested. “You wouldn’t compare the importance of an advertisement with a murder.”

“I think Mr. Mornington’s quite right,” the Archdeacon said. “After all, one shouldn’t be put out of one’s stride by anything phenomenal and accidental. The just man wouldn’t be.”

“But, still, a murder—” the Vicar protested.

The Archdeacon shrugged. “Murders or mice, the principle’s the same,” he answered. “To-morrow is too late, I suppose?”

“Quite,” Mornington answered. “But I needn’t worry you with my phenomenal and specialist troubles.”

“As a matter of fact,” the Archdeacon went on placidly, “we were talking about your firm at first rather differently.” He pointed with his glasses to the manuscript on the table, and looked coyly at Mornington. “I dare say you can guess,” he added.

Mornington tried to look pleased, and said in a voice that almost cracked with doubt: “Books?”

“A book,” the Vicar said. “The Archdeacon’s been giving a series of addresses on Christianity and the League of Nations, and he’s made them into a little volume which ought to have a good sale. So, of course, I thought of you.”

“Thank you so much,” Mornington answered. “And you’ll excuse me asking — but is the Archdeacon prepared to back his fancy? Will he pay if necessary?”

The Archdeacon shook his head. “I couldn’t do that, Mr. Mornington,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me quite moral, so to speak. You know how they say a book is like a child. One has a ridiculous liking for one’s own child — quite ridiculous. And that’s all right. But seriously to think it’s better than other children, to push it, to ‘back’ its being better, as you said — that seems to me so silly as to be almost wicked.” He shook his head sadly at the manuscript.

“On the general principle I don’t agree with you,” Mornington said. “If your ideas are better than others’ you ought to push them. I’ve no patience with our modern democratic modesty. How do you know the publisher you send it to is a better judge than you are? And, if he rejects it, what do you do?”

“If I send it to all the publishers,” the Archdeacon answered, “and they all reject it, I think I should believe them. Securus iudicat, you know.”

“But it doesn’t,” Mornington said. “Not by any manner of means. The orbis terrarum has to be taught its business by the more intelligent people. It has never yet received a new idea into its chaotic mind unless imposed by force, and generally by the sword.”

He picked up the MS. and turned over the pages. “‘The Protocol and the Pact,’” he read aloud, “‘as Stages in Man’s Consciousness.’ ‘Qualities and Nationalities.’ ‘Modes of Knowledge in Christ and Their Correspondences in Mankind.’ ‘Is the League of Nations Representative?’”

“I gather,” he said, looking up, “that this is at once specialist and popular. I don’t for a moment suppose we shall take it, but I should like to have a look at it. May I carry it off now?”

“I think I’d like to keep it over the week-end,” the Archdeacon answered. “There’s a point or two I want to think over and a little Greek I want to check. Perhaps I might bring it down to you on Monday or Tuesday?”

“Do,” Mornington said. “Of course, I shan’t decide. It’ll go to one of our political readers, who won’t, I should think from the chapter-headings, even begin to understand it. But bring it along by all means. Persimmons’ list is the most muddled-up thing in London. ‘Foxy Flossie’s Flirtations’ and ‘Notes on Black Magic Considered Philosophically’. But that, of course, is his father, so there’s some excuse.”

“I thought you told me the elder Mr. Persimmons had retired,” the Vicar said.

“He is the Evening Star,” Mornington answered. “He cuts the glory from the grey, as it were. But he pops in a good deal so as to do it. He hovers on the horizon perpetually, and about once a fortnight lightens from the east to the west, or at least to Persimmons’ private office. A nice enough creature — with a perverse inclination towards the occult.”

“I’m afraid,” the Vicar said gloomily, “this interest in what they call the occult is growing. It’s a result of the lack of true religion in these days and a wrong curiosity.”

“Oh, wrong, do you think?” Mornington asked. “Would you say any kind of curiosity was wrong? What about Job?”

“Job?” the Archdeacon asked.

“Well, sir, I always understood that where Job scored over the three friends was in feeling a natural curiosity why all those unfortunate things happened to him. They simply put up with it, but he, so to speak, asked God what He thought He was doing.”

The Vicar shook his head. “He was told he couldn’t understand.”

“He was taunted with not being able to understand — which isn’t quite the same thing,” Mornington answered. “As a mere argument there’s something lacking perhaps, in saying to a man who’s lost his money and his house and his family and is sitting on the dustbin, all over boils, ‘Look at the hippopotamus.’”

“Job seemed to be impressed,” the Archdeacon said mildly.

“Yes,” Mornington admitted. “He was certainly a perfect fool, in one meaning or other of the words.” He got up to go, and added: “Then I shall see you in the City before you go back to . . . Castra Parvulorum, was it? What a jolly name!”

“Unfortunately it isn’t generally called that,” the Archdeacon said. “It’s called in directories and so on, and by the inhabitants, Fardles. By Grimm’s Law.”

“Grimm’s Law?” Mornington asked, astonished. “Wasn’t he the man who wrote the fairy tales for the parvuli? But why did he make a law about it? And why did anyone take any notice?”

“I understand it was something to do with Indo–European sounds,” the Archdeacon answered. “The Castra was dropped, and in parvulorum the p became f and the v became d. And Grimm discovered what had happened. But I try and keep the old name as well as I can. It’s not far from London. They say Caesar gave it the name because his soldiers caught a lot of British children there, and he sent them back to their own people.”

“Then I don’t see why Grimm should have interfered,” Mornington said, shaking hands. “Fardles . . . it sounds like an essay by Maurice Hewlett. Castra Parvulorum . . . it sounds like . . . it sounds like Rome. Well, good night, sir. Good night, Vicar. No, don’t come to the door.”

iii

Actually at the moment when Mornington was speaking of him the elder Mr. Persimmons was sitting in a comfortable chair in an Ealing flat, listening to his son’s account of the afternoon’s adventure. He was a large man, and he lay back watching Stephen with amused eyes, as the younger man grew more and more agitated over the incredible facts.

“I’m so afraid it’ll be bad for business,” he ended abruptly.

The other sighed a little and looked at the fire. “Business,” he said. “Oh, I shouldn’t worry about business. If they want your books, they’ll buy your books.” He paused a little, and added: “I called in to see you today, but you were out.”

“Did you?” his son said. “They didn’t tell me.”

“Just as well,” Mr. Persimmons answered, “because you needn’t know now. You won’t be called at the inquest. Only, if anybody ever asks you, say you’ll ask me and find out. I tell you because I want to know what you are doing and saying.”

Stephen was looking out of the window, and a minute went by before he spoke. Then he said absently, “What did you want? Anything important?”

“I wanted to talk about the balance sheet,” his father answered. “There are a few points I don’t quite understand. And I still incline to think the proportion of novels is too high. It fritters money away, merely using it to produce more novels of the same kind. I want a definite proportion established between that and the other kind of book. You could quite well have produced my Intensive Mastery instead of that appalling balderdash about Flossie. Stephen, are you listening?”

“Yes,” Stephen said half-angrily.

“I don’t believe you mean to produce my book,” his father went on equably. “Did you read it?”

“Yes,” Stephen said again, and came back into the room. “I don’t know about it. I told you I didn’t quite like it — I don’t think other people would. Of course, I know there’s a great demand for that sort of psycho-analytic book, but I didn’t feel at all sure —” He stopped doubtfully.

“If you ever felt quite sure, Stephen,” the older man said, “I should lose a great deal of pleasure. What was it you didn’t feel quite sure about this time?”

“Well, all the examples — and the stories,” Stephen answered vaguely. “They’re all right, I suppose, but they seemed so — funny.”

“‘Funny Stories I Have Read’, by Stephen Persimmons,” his father gibed. “They weren’t stories, Stephen. They were scientific examples.”

“But they were all about torture,” the other answered. “There was a dreadful one about — oh, horrible! I don’t believe it would sell.”

“It will sell right enough,” his father said. “You’re not a scientist, Stephen.”

“And the diagrams and all that,” his son went on. “It’d cost a great deal to produce.”

“Well, you shall do as you like,” Persimmons answered. “But, if you don’t produce it by Christmas, I’ll print it privately. That will cost a lot more money, Stephen. And anything else I write. If there are many more it’ll make a nasty hole in my accounts. And there won’t be any sale then, because I shall give them away. And burn what are over. Make up your mind over the week-end. I’ll come down next week to hear what you decide. All a gamble, Stephen, and you don’t like to bet except on a certainty, do you? You know, if I could afford it, I should enjoy ruining you, Stephen. But that, Stephen —”

“For God’s sake, don’t keep on calling me Stephen like that,” the wretched publisher said. “I believe you like worrying me.”

“But that,” his father went on placidly, “wasn’t the only reason I came to see you today. I wanted to kill a man, and your place seemed to me as good as any and better than most. So it was, it seems.”

Stephen Persimmons stared at the large, heavy body opposite lying back in its chair, and said, “You’re worrying me . . . aren’t you?”

“I may be,” the other said, “but facts, I’ve noticed, do worry you, Stephen. They worried your mother into that lunatic asylum. A dreadful tragedy, Stephen — to be cut off from one’s wife like that. I hope nothing of the sort will ever happen to you. Here am I comparatively young — and I should like another child, Stephen. Yes, Stephen, I should like another child. There’d be someone else to leave the money to; someone else with an interest in the business. And I should know better what to do. Now, when you were born, Stephen —”

“Oh, God Almighty,” his son cried, “don’t talk to me like that. What do you mean — you wanted to kill a man?”

“Mean?” the father asked. “Why, that. I hadn’t thought of it till the day before, really — yesterday, so it was; when Sir Giles Tumulty told me Rackstraw was coming to see him — and then it only just crossed my mind. But when we got there, it was all so clear and empty. A risk, of course, but not much. Ask him to wait there while I get the money, and shut the door without going out. Done in a minute, Stephen, I assure you. He was an undersized creature, too.”

Stephen found himself unable to ask any more questions. Did his father mean it or not? It would be like the old man to torment him? but if he had? Would it be a way of release?

“Well, first, Stephen,” the voice struck in, “you can’t and won’t be sure. And it wouldn’t look well to denounce your father on chance. Your mother is in a lunatic asylum, you know. And, secondly, my last will — I made it a week or two ago — leaves all my money to found a settlement in East London. Very awkward for you, Stephen, if it all had to be withdrawn. But you won’t, you won’t. If anyone asks you, say you weren’t told, but you know I wanted to talk to you about the balance sheet. I’ll come in next week to do it.”

Stephen got to his feet. “I think you want to drive me mad too,” he said. “O God, if I only knew!”

“You know me,” his father said. “Do you think I should worry about strangling you, Stephen, if I wanted to? As, of course, I might. But it’s getting late. You know, Stephen, you brood too much; I’ve always said so. You keep your troubles to yourself and brood over them. Why not have a good frank talk with one of your clerks — that fellow Rackstraw, say? But you always were a secretive fellow. Perhaps it’s as well, perhaps it’s as well. And you haven’t got a wife. Now, can you hang me or can’t you?” The door shut behind his son, but he went on still aloud. “The wizards were burned, they went to be burned, they hurried. Is there a need still? Must the wizard be an outcast like the saint? Or am I only tired? I want another child. And I want the Graal.”

He lay back in his chair, contemplating remote possibilities and the passage of the days immediately before him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30